Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Sierra Juniper

The Sierra juniper (Juniperus occidentalis, also known as the Western juniper) is the most impressive tree of its kind. It grows up to 60 feet tall in cold and wind-swept austerity high among the boulders of alpine forests. In the northern part of its range (throughout Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Northern California) it manages nicely at mid-elevations. But in the Central Sierra it is primarily a tree of the high country, preferring elevations from 7,000 feet right up to the thin air where trees no longer grow.

Sixty feet may not seem all that noteworthy in a land where other trees regularly grow over 200 feet. But this is a perspective of arm-chair naturalists. The giant conifers of the West, for all their magnificence, are trees that grow at lower elevations. The record-setting redwoods of California and Oregon are coastal species that drink in the mist of a vaporous sea. Even the mid-level species above the Central Valley enjoy plenty of water and a moderate clime.

The land of the Sierra juniper, however, is no such place. Most of the year freezing temperatures are typical, at least at night. And when a storm blows in, it often comes with blasts of wind and water. The life-giving snowstorms in this country not only leave a blanket of crystalline white on the forest floor but also a residual reminder plastered to the sides of trees. In such an environment it seems counter-intuitive that stately and long-lived beings ever thrive. But thrive they do, and often in grand style.

Perhaps the most famous Sierra juniper is the Bennett Juniper of Deadman Creek. It is 2,000 to 3,000 years old and its crown, over 85 feet above ground, is aging but strong. At its base, the tree is almost 13 feet wide. It is old and wise - most of its relatives are much younger - only several hundreds of years old. But these passing seasons should not be minimized. Survivors up here are not coddled into longevity, they earn it.

These trees have stories to tell of week-long winds and deep winter snows. They have learned how to capture the life source of the sun while enduring the pinioning of heavy winter ice - sometimes doing both at the same time. Theirs is a story of growth in spite of storms and their gnarled frames are grim reminders of the price that comes from living above the world.

On some of their branches - sometimes hidden and sometimes extending out in obvious proffer - are small round juniper berries. These are not soft sweet fruits that you might expect from a typical berry. In fact they are not true berries at all, but rather the tart woodsy cones of wild conifers. And they are small (about the size of small peas) and look nothing at all like pine cones. Unofficially they are called berry cones. In most kinds of junipers they are light blue or reddish brown. In the Sierra juniper, however, they are dark bluish gray with a soft waxy patina. But their pungency is just as distinct as their more famous relatives.

Crushed just lightly, juniper berry cones are loved by Northern Europeans as a wild-land spice for pork, beef or game birds. The flavoring is also used in gin and others blend it with garlic or rosemary. Yet most English-speaking countries are not familiar with this taste, which is too bad. A few crushed berry cones blended with olive oil and a touch of honey give a purposeful delectation to a Sunday roast.

At 9,000 feet, however, Sierra junipers feed very few of us. Their primary patrons are the alpine corvids that caw their defiant plaints from tree to tree. Watch closely as a Clark’s nutcracker plucks a berry cone with its beak and rolls it deftly back and forth. Then, if it is deemed acceptable, it tips its head back and gulps it down.

The High Sierra is a land of blizzards and lightning storms, and junipers bear the scars of both. Young resilient branches are often bent for months under snow or away from relentless winds. But as trees get older the suppleness ends and new growth becomes rigid. The contortions of wind and snow are locked in place leaving a record of battles endured.

Because of this old Sierra junipers do not flex rhythmically to Aeolian harps like timber lower down. Over a century ago, John Muir would write euphorically of his experience climbing a lower-elevation conifer in a gusty wind storm. He held to the upper canopy for hours as the tree swayed back and forth, breathing the sea and coastal air that had come from so many miles away. He was not in a juniper.

In fact Muir notes in the same essay that “There are two trees in the Sierra forests that are never blown down, so long as they continue in sound health. These are the Juniper and the Dwarf Pine of summit peaks… The burly juniper, whose girth sometimes more than equals its height, is about as rigid as the rocks on which it grows.” The roots, clinging immovably to granite boulders; the trunk, hard and thick, and the branches, reaching out for light are all staid, severe and secure. They endure by finding their place and staying there.

Sometimes the high country is pelted with bolts of electricity and junipers, like so many lightning rods, attract the searing brands with troubled equipoise. They carry the record of forgotten storms as cortical scars etched into their boles. Sometimes these wounds fester and trees die. At other times trees survive the strikes only to succumb to fire. Juniper bark, after all, is ideal tinder. As it ages, it peels free in places from the trunk and dries, leaving woody threads that are easily enflamed.

But if a tree is burned to death, the rich soil built from years of decaying scaly leaves will nourish new seedlings. But this takes time. Junipers do not thrive where there are frequent fires. Fortunately large fires are not as common at higher elevations as they are at lower ones. The air is thinner - with less oxygen - and fuel is not piled so high. There are places at lower elevations where junipers are expanding their range but these are usually places that have been managed free of fires.

In its high southern home, the Sierra juniper survives in spite of storms, fires and punishing air. Or maybe it is more appropriate to say that it survives because of them. At 9,000 feet it’s hard to know exactly what adversity really means. The wind that scours is a thrill to breathe and the wisdom surrounding these twisted trees can tempt the grateful visitor to never leave.


The John Muir quote comes from his essay A Wind-Storm in the Forests. A bit on juniper spices can be found in Jill Norman’s, The Complete Book of Spices.

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